Cass McCombs
A Man of Many Songs
by Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

This week, Cass McCombs is set to release his second album of 2011, Humor Risk, following the critically acclaimed Wit’s End, which came out in April. It will be his sixth record since the California native made his full-length debut with A in 2003. During the intervening years, he has also collaborated with actress Karen Black, who sang on “Dreams Come True,” had his songs used in skate videos and films, been called an “indie heartthrob” by NPR, and been championed by the late British tastemaker John Peel.

On Humor Risk, McCombs has eschewed the trappings of the archetypal folkie singer-songwriter, instead dancing around the periphery of the genre and carving out a singular path through the darkness of self-expression and the gleaming clarity of lyrical imagery. Unlike the soulful, grooving start of the last album, this time around he starts off rocking a little harder. Not to worry, though, the album works its way back to familiar territory by the end of the record. His lyrics are sharper and more vivid than ever and the songcraft shows his backing musicians confidently in step with each other, anticipating and complimenting even the slightest of his gestures. Aggrandizing an artist’s work with hyperbole is easy enough for a third party writer when the work is good, but expecting the artist to explain themselves can be an exercise in futility, especially if that artist has delusions of grandeur about their own work. Luckily, as I found out speaking to him on the phone, McCombs is forthright and honest about his output, makes no bones about the subject material, and in the end, seems to only want for his music to speak for itself.

I’m still absorbing Humor Risk. There’s a few little production quirks, like in the first song: dog barking, maybe a ping pong ball bouncing or some keys jingling. Was that a premeditated choice or did the sounds come together after everything was done?

Cass McCombs: Oh yeah, well, that is a field recording of a family coming home from work and asking their child about his homework, greeting the dog and setting down the keys and washing out the dishes. I thought it provided a narrative to the song, which is kind of about an internal domestic problem.

Some of the songs are a little more hi-fi, but then there’s “Mariah,” a kind of a lo-fi, bedroom Sebadoh-style ditty. Were you aiming to contrast production styles?

CM: No, the way I record is totally haphazard. I just record whenever there’s free time. We don’t go into a studio to make a record and spend a bunch of money—that’s not how I make records. I just continuously record, when a friend is available, and then compile the best recordings into what ends up as a record. That’s why it sounds like it’s recorded with different processes, because the songs are recorded in different cities with different musicians and different engineers and different processes. Some is on tape, some is on hard drives, and all different formats.

This is the second album of 2011. Did you start exploding with songs or are these culled from over time? Were these songs grouped together after you’d recorded everything?

CM: No, the albums were done individually. These two albums don’t go together, they just happened to come out the same year. That’s the only thing they have in common. The Wit’s End record I had been making for years, since Catacombs (2009). It just took a real long time to make and finish. Humor Risk just sort of popped out.

I get the idea from the title, Humor Risk, that sometimes there’s an alienating factor to some humor, as if some jokes can go misconstrued and you sort of have to commit to the direction those jokes made the conversation go.

CM: I chose the title because it’s risky to make light of life and have a sense of humor, and it’s risky to have a sense of humor in art. It’s risky now because of the commercialism that’s in art. I mean, only serious people can take their art with a grain of salt, while the commercial people take it very seriously. It’s sort of backwards. It’s like, we don’t make any money so it’s easy for us not to care. It’s sort of a big joke.

So artistically is it better to not care?

CM: I wouldn’t call myself a Merry Prankster, but I really appreciate what they did. Once I was at a festival, a gathering of the tribes, really. There was a guy with this kind of air slingshot device. He would go up to people that were rolling their own cigarettes and he would stand 10 feet away with this device. He would hurl a gust of air or wind at the cigarette and the cigarette would explode in the person’s hand, the tobacco would fly everywhere and the paper would fly away. He would laugh and the person might get mad, and he would say, “Oh, don’t take yourself so seriously.” I thought it was so obnoxious, really, but somewhat truthful.

I’ve likened your songwriting to Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, but some of your lyrical work (like the Lionkiller songs) could be construed as politely patronizing, like slipping in a little jab to see if anyone is actually listening.

CM: Oh yeah, sure. Humor is spontaneous. The only place it exists is in spontaneity, that’s why it’s such a revolutionary concept. Especially in music, people plod so slowly and they’re so slow with their decision making that when you’re lightning fast ,it’s a revolutionary concept. Some people don’t like it. It scares them because it shows how easy it all is. That’s why I think humor is revolutionary.

As opposed to sitting there and mulling over every move.

CM: Yeah, as opposed to caring.

The Lionkiller series of songs portray a pretty cohesive narrative. Did you cull that from your own life experiences?

CM: No, my songs aren’t really about me at all. I’m not a poet. My music is just for the sake of music.

It’s not confessional or soul bearing?

CM: No, it’s not confessional. It’s not even stream of consciousness. I’m well removed from my songs. I don’t even want to touch them. Oh yeah, the Lionkiller songs... well, it’s a story of a kid growing up and trying to find who he is. But as you’re discovering who you are, you are questioning what you want to be, but you’re also fighting against what has been made of you. There are a lot of decisions about what we’d like to be. There’s an equal amount that you can’t change. You can’t change the color of your skin, or you can, but it’s very, very hard. You can’t change your gender, or you can, but it’s very, very hard. There are many things that are very, very difficult to change about yourself, and only the strongest people can change those things.

How do your songs come together, lyrics first or do you mess around with the music and develop lyrics from there?

CM: I don’t really have a certain way. I try not to have a format. I want every time to be different; it’s the only way it’s worthwhile for me. There’s no other reason for me to do this than to just enjoy myself and challenge myself.

Do you still write and update your own website?

CM: No, it’s not just me. It’s a bunch of people. There are a couple of things I’ve written that are up there, some writings and such.

It started out as a venue for internet anarchy.

CM: Well, that was way back in ancient history. I put out a record and someone, I think the record company, suggested that we buy the domain name. At the time, we didn’t have anyone that could maintain the site as like a real commercial website. Some big bands have those big fancy schmancy commercial websites. We never had that kind of money behind it, so we couldn’t do anything like that. Several of the people in my band weren’t just musicians. They were artists, as were several of the people I was friends with in New York at the time. So we decided to make it like a gallery instead of just about my music, kind of an antithesis to the commercialization of music. People might search for my music, but what they find is something completely different and hopefully surprising and maybe even antagonizing in a way. I hoped that it would put some people off, you know? I’m always trying to weed out the bad apples.

Was there a specific impetus that pushed you toward a music career?

CM: Well, it was always with me. I was always musical. I was always dancing and singing as a kid. Eventually I found the guitar. I was obsessed with The Beatles and the radio, switching through every channel on the dial. It was music. It’s the greatest.